Tuesday, February 17, 2009

A crisis in sociology?

Alvin Gouldner thought there was a "coming crisis in sociology" -- but that was almost forty years ago, in 1970 (The Coming Crisis of Western Sociology). And in 1996 Immanuel Wallerstein closed out the century by chairing the Gulbenkian Commission on the Restructuring of the Social Sciences, issuing a report that called for some radical rethinking of the basic assumptions of the social sciences (Open the Social Sciences).

Both Gouldner and Wallerstein are pretty good at theorizing about the social world. So what can we learn from their worries? Does the twenty-first century demand some new thinking in the ways that we construct the social sciences?

I think it does. If we want to have a more adequate basis for understanding the rapid processes of social change that surround us globally and locally, we need to rethink the concepts and methods we bring to social theory. And if we want to have a basis for attempting to influence some of these processes through policy, so as to avoid some of the more awful outcomes that they seem to lead to, then we need to be more eclectic in our thinking about social causes and their interactions.

What are some of the considerations that lead Gouldner, Wallerstein, and other critics to the conclusion that sociology needs some rethinking?

Gouldner's concerns are focused on what he calls the Academic Sociology of the first half of the twentieth century. The first two-thirds of the book takes the form of a critique of the sociological theories that dominated sociology in the 1940s and 1950s -- theories of social order, structural development, the workings of the social system, functionalism, and the pervasive influence of Talcott Parsons in the middle decades of the century. So the crisis to which Gouldner refers is really the crisis of functionalist sociology (though he indicates that he thinks that Marxist sociology is heading towards its own crisis as well). It is a sociology that attempts to understand society as a system, that expects social phenomena to be lawlike, and that abstracts almost entirely from history as context or process.

Essentially Gouldner's critique is that functionalism implicitly assumes that social systems have reached some kind of optimum in the composition of institutions that govern social life. Social organizations bring about maximum social utility. But Gouldner points out that this theoretical mindset makes it inherently difficult to deal with change. And yet the United States in the 1960s was unmistakeably involved in a process of profound change in its social, economic, and political institutions. So functionalist sociology was ill-equipped to understand and explain the most basic features of American life in the post-Vietnam War era -- mass protest, racial inequality, extension of the welfare state, urban poverty, and maladaptive political structures.

This is roughly the point at which Julia Adams, Elisabeth Stephanie Clemens, and Ann Shola Orloff pick up the story in Remaking Modernity: Politics, History, and Sociology. And their focus group of beacon social scientists is a promising one -- scholars such as Barrington Moore, Theda Skocpol, Sidney Tarrow, Charles Tilly, or Jack Goldstone, for example. Adams and her co-editors provide a much more hopeful interpretation of the promise that the methods of historical sociology have for improving our understanding of the society we live in. The sociology of social movements, conflict, and change replaced the sociology of systems and functional adaptations among the basic institutions of a society; change rather than stasis was the central thread. And along with this emphasis on change came a sociological spotlight on history. In fact, one might say that the crisis that Gouldner foresaw was actually resolved by the explosion of research within historical sociology, social mobilization theory, and mid-level studies of historically concrete social institutions and processes.

Now what about Wallerstein's worries about contemporary sociology? Several points are particularly salient. First, there is a critique of the "nomothetic" quest -- the idea that the social sciences should discover social laws. In fact, the commission report observes that this goal is even a bit challenged in the natural sciences when we consider the dynamics of non-linear dynamic systems:

Today many natural scientists would argue that the world should be described quite differently. It is a more unstable world, a much more complex world, a world in which perturbations play a big role, one of whose key questions is how to explain how such complexity arises. (62)
And social phenomena surely demonstrate this sort of complex non-linearity as well. So it is unlikely that we will discover robust "laws of society" that will serve to explain and predict social outcomes.

Second, there is praise for the reunion of social science and history, with social scientists recognizing that the phenomena they study always have a historical context, and with historians recognizing that the social scientists may have uncovered quasi-general processes that can assist them to arrive at explanations of puzzling historical outcomes. This converges a bit with Gouldner's critique of functionalism. Referring to a new generation of social scientists, Wallerstein writes:
Their criticism of "mainstream" social sciences included the assertion that they had neglected the centrality of social change, favoring a mythology of consensus, and that they showed a naive, even arrogant, self-assuredness in applying Western concepts to the analysis of very different phenomena and cultures. (44)
Third, Wallerstein notes that many of the large concepts of social science research in the 1960s are deeply questionable -- for example, the concept of modernization as a construct around which to understand the development processes of the post-colonial world. Much more satisfactory is research along the lines of that of Arturo Escobar, fundamentally questioning the assumptions of progress, development, and modernization that dominated a lot of development thinking in the sixties (Encountering Development).

And fourth, Wallerstein and the commission raise pointed questions about the adequacy of disciplinary boundaries in the social sciences, and they emphasize the value of stimulating social research across the boundaries of the various disciplines.

So what kind of sociology should we be looking for if we want to understand the big, complex changes that surround us -- big cities, globalization, social networks, terrorism, failing schools, economic transitions, or the transmission of pandemic illness?

Here's a possible vision: We should be eclectic in theory and in method. We should welcome large interdisciplinary collaborations. We should expect heterogeneity and plasticity in the phenomena we study. We should pay a lot of attention to historical process and historical context -- not because the past determines the future, but because it constrains it. We should look carefully for the concrete mechanisms that bring about the social outcomes of interest. We should be ready to disaggregate large social processes into their components. And we should be more than ready to settle our gaze on the middle range of phenomena rather than stretching for heroic generalizations that are intended to hold across time, space, and culture.

We will need the best social science we can create to handle the challenges of the twenty-first century. And the shards that remain of positivism, functionalism, and naturalism won't help us to arrive at the innovative intellectual frameworks that will be required.

(Here and here are posts on some related methodological disputes in sociology and political science.)

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